LOS ANGELES -- First-year Los Angeles Lakers head coach Luke Walton and his staff first saw signs during the preseason, when they were still tinkering with their inaugural lineup, searching for player combinations that might work best. As much as they experimented, they noticed how the second unit kept playing together exceptionally well, how the respective skill sets of those players seamlessly meshed together, how it formed an especially strong chemistry, how, almost always, that unit seemed to give the Lakers a better-than-expected punch upon entering the game.
“We got to the point where the bench was becoming pretty special,” Walton recalled Sunday.
As Walton and staff worked to solidify the starting lineup, they remained cautious not to mess with their second unit, not to ruin what was clearly becoming something pretty special.
Then came the regular season and the eventual injuries that befall every team. Still, Walton drew a hard line against throwing some of his best reserves into the starting lineup, claiming that the bench was arguably their best weapon -- the key to their surprisingly strong start as compared to last season -- and it was important, if not vital, to keep that unit intact.
On recent nights, Walton was again asked why he wouldn’t just take some of his best and most effective bench players and start them instead, but the 36-year-old coach refused to budge.
On Sunday, Walton’s insistence on this point was met by some measure of vindication. Against the Atlanta Hawks, the Lakers lacked two starters -- forward Julius Randle (hip pointer) and point guard D’Angelo Russell (sore left knee) -- but Walton, as usual, decided that the core of his second unit would remain unblemished.
And that second unit rewarded him by carrying the Lakers back from an early double-digit deficit and to a resounding 109-94 win, pushing them to 9-9, meaning they already have more than half the wins that they achieved all of last season when they posted a franchise-worst 17-65 mark.
The Lakers’ bench averaged an NBA-best 51.2 points per game entering Sunday, and they topped that figure by producing 65 against the Hawks, whose bench scored 24. Lakers guard Lou Williams led the way with 21 points, Jordan Clarkson scored 18 and Larry Nance Jr. added 12 points and 10 rebounds.
“Groups build chemistry together, and that group has it,” Walton said. “They have been one of the best groups of five -- starters or benches -- all season long in the NBA. We feel that we have a big advantage when that group gets on the court together, and that’s why we try so hard to keep them somewhat in similar rotations when they are going to be subbing in and what not.”
Walton noted that his bench unit has a wide variety of skill sets that complement each other well. Clarkson and Williams are potent scorers. Forward Brandon Ingram’s 7-foot-3 wingspan makes him a versatile defender, plus he can play point guard on offense. Nance and center Tarik Black can guard interior and perimeter players, as well as run the pick-and-roll with proficiency.
“You can throw whatever you want at us, but we just have the guys that mesh well,” Nance said. “It’s a very versatile group, and that’s a little bit of what makes us so successful.”
Williams added, “I think we’re averaging 50-plus points a game, and JC is a starter in this league, and I’m a sixth man in this league, and you kind of put both of us together, and then you have all the other guys doing the dirty work, it’s a good mix.”
On top of it all, the group plays with an especially selfless nature, Walton noted -- whoever is in a groove receives the ball on offense, and they cover for each other well on the defensive end.
“I just don’t think we have the mind-set where we care about accolades,” Williams said. “I think that’s one of the important things. I don’t think we have one guy that’s going out there with an individual goal in mind. I think that’s been very helpful for us going out on the floor.”
But perhaps Black made the most profound point about the success of the Lakers’ second unit.
“We sacrifice for each other,” said Black, who had seven points and eight rebounds against the Hawks. “It’s easy to do that when you come off one season [with] 17 wins and the season before that [21 wins]. It’s easier to buy in and do that for one another when you see the success for one another, and that’s what’s so great about having this group together, struggling first and then seeing the success, because we know where we come from and we know we don’t want to revert back.”
Black was speaking for the bench players, but in general, what he said applies quite well for the team as a whole. The Lakers continue to make impressive strides under Walton, whose new joy-filled culture is taking form perhaps far sooner than most expected.
“We give ourselves up for each other,” Black said. “We sacrifice for each other. You can see it on the court: open man gets the shot. We play defense for each other. You can see it on our team: We smile together, we laugh together. Man, we love each other in this locker room. We have a really good team. We have a really tight-knit group. That’s what it’s about, sacrificing for each other and putting selfishness to the side and [focusing on] what’s better for the team.”